Last week, I was encouraging you not to multitask! And here is the reason why!
Multitasking is actually counterproductive because it increases content switching costs, a phenomenon in which attention shifts away from one thing to another, increasing the time needed to complete the original task by as much as 75%. So focus and prioritize is my advice!
We also know that content switching costs vary depending on what you do, where you do it, and why you do it. For example, switching between reading and writing takes longer than switching between typing and speaking. And we know that switching costs increase dramatically when there are multiple tasks involved. This makes sense: If I am trying to write something down while simultaneously listening to someone speak, my ability to pay full attention to both tasks declines rapidly.
Switching costs don’t just affect our ability to perform well; they also undermine our motivation. Research consistently finds that people feel less motivated to perform a task when they are distracted by something else. In addition, people tend to overestimate how long they spend doing each task. So, even though they might think they’re spending 30 minutes working on a spreadsheet, in reality they could easily be spending twice that amount.
So, what does this mean for us? Well, the good news is that most of us already know what we need to do to improve our focus. We simply need to make some changes in our habits. We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded by information coming from multiple sources. This constant barrage of stimuli makes it difficult to remain focused and productive. In fact, research suggests that our brains are wired to switch tasks every 30 seconds. Our ability to multitask is what allows us to accomplish things quickly and efficiently. But there is a downside to being able to do many things at once. When you try to keep several balls in the air simultaneously, you end up dropping some of them. You lose track of important deadlines and miss opportunities because you didn’t give each project enough attention.
In his book “The Power of Full Engagement,” author Jim Loehr describes three distinct stages of mental energy: alertness, concentration, and absorption. Alertness is the state of mind in which you’re aware of your surroundings and ready to respond to anything that might happen. Concentration is the state of mind during which you are completely focused on a single task. And finally, absorption is the state of mind when you are completely engrossed in something. These states of mind vary depending on what we are doing. For example, when we are reading a book, we are usually in the absorption stage. If we are listening to music while driving, we are probably in the concentration stage. However, if we are talking on the phone, we are likely in the alertness stage.
When you begin working on a particular task, you enter into the concentration stage. As you continue to work on the same task, you move toward the absorption stage. At this point, you become so absorbed in what you are doing that you don’t even realize that you’ve left the concentration stage.
What happens when you try to maintain too many activities in different stages at once? You drop out of the concentration phase and fall into the alertness phase, which causes you to lose focus. Your brain becomes confused about what to pay attention to and begins switching back and forth among the different projects. This leads to a lack of focus and eventually, fatigue.
If you want to avoid losing focus, consider creating routines to help you achieve full concentration. Multitaskers often find themselves juggling several tasks simultaneously. But research suggests that multitasking actually slows us down. In fact, we spend more time switching our attention between tasks than completing each one. So why do we still feel compelled to multi-task?
We think that multitasking is a habit born of convenience. When you’re busy working on something else, you don’t have to stop what you’re doing to check your e-mails or respond to texts. You just keep moving forward. And because multitasking feels effortless, most of us assume that it must be effective. After all, there’s no reason to put forth extra energy if you aren’t getting anything done.
But here’s the thing about multitasking: It doesn’t work. Research consistently finds that multitasking reduces performance, especially when it involves switching rapidly between tasks. Switching takes time; it requires cognitive resources. And those resources are finite. If you’re trying to write a paper while listening to music, you’ll probably end up with sloppy writing and poor comprehension.
So why does multitasking persist? Because it’s too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we can just switch quickly from one task to the next. As soon as we realize that we’ve been distracted, we worry that we’ve wasted time, and we feel guilty about letting others down. This cycle leads to a vicious circle: More time spent worrying about whether we’ve lost momentum, and less time spent finishing projects.
Our brains evolved to handle one task at a time. Our ancestors had to pay close attention to every detail of their environment. If someone approached unexpectedly, they needed to react immediately. To survive, they couldn’t afford to waste time looking away from whatever they were doing.
Nowadays, however, many of us are constantly bombarded by stimuli. We’re surrounded by phones, computers, TVs, radios, and billboards. We’re inundated by text messages, social media posts, and e-mails. And even though we know that multitasking isn’t productive, we continue to try to squeeze everything into the same narrow window of time.
Here’s where the problem lies. Multitasking is a habit. Like any habit, it becomes automatic. And once we learn to do it, we begin to believe that it makes sense. We convince ourselves that we’re being smart, and that we’re saving time.
So now with knowing that, how will you change your habits?! You can start by working with me.
PS: Did you know that an average human attention span is just 8.25 seconds?! That’s less than a goldfish! And it has decreased in the last 15 years… yes, more and more distractions in life… So learn to focus, not to multitask! 🙂